The ongoing flap over the National Security Agency accumulating reams of data from telephone and Internet usage of American citizens has raised an enormous outcry from all sides. At the extremes are security hawks who are determined to ensure that the government not be restricted in gaining access to the information it feels it needs, certainly in any war on terror. On the other side there are Bill of Rights absolutists who are defiant in their belief that governments must have access only to precisely the specific information they require and no more. They also believe emphatically that the courts established by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act must be engaged at all times to protect individual rights. Without strict constraints and judicial oversight, say civil libertarians, no government will voluntarily limit the material it gathers for whatever purposes it may desire.
For President Obama, secretly collecting enormous quantities of information about individuals in the name of national security seems to have violated many of the positions he espoused before he entered the White House. The former professor of constitutional law showed a personal commitment to civil liberties and the protection of individual rights.
Instead, Obama became entrapped in the culture of the intelligence community and the power aura of the White House. He did not challenge the system he inherited from the Bush White House, but capitulated to it. According to some reports, Obama has become as obsessed with and protective of the president’s right and “need to know” as many of his predecessors. He has become determined to eliminate leaks and stop whistleblowers.
Many people would be much more at ease with permitting government greater access if we were not living in such a hyper-politicized era. There have always been political leaders who have sought to exploit national security crises for partisan political ends. Political campaigns, strategic decisions, and even defense funding issues have been subjected to politicization.
However, today’s political vitriol, spewed from all sides, envelops and undermines serious national security discussions. Consequently, efforts by politicians and government officials who do seek a genuine, considered discussion about security and civil liberties find themselves almost marginalized by personal attacks and partisan mistrust.
Many Jews have reacted to this discussion with a shrug. They know that for Israelis extensive surveillance is part of everyday life. For most Israelis, Americans’ anxiety over the government overseeing personal and private communications is much ado about nothing. Within Israel the terrorist dangers are so constant and pervasive, that many people — rightly or wrongly — have conceded many of their civil liberties in the name of national and homeland security. (Not surprisingly, American security services have turned to Israeli experts for advice on surveillance and data analysis.)
For American Jews, however, there ought to be a far greater concern about the indiscriminate gathering of surveillance information. Jews need to understand and remember how information gathered in the name of “national security” has been misused or fabricated. Joe McCarthy produced fictitious lists of communists, many of whom were Jews. Richard Nixon assembled a list of “enemies,” full of names that reflected his oft-quoted distrust of Jews. J. Edgar Hoover gathered reams of intelligence on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights and anti-war activists in a zealous effort to discredit them.
Given how much of the war on terror emanates out of the Middle East today, Jews and Israelis very quickly could be subjected to the misuse of surveillance power, even if such activity were being performed strictly in the name of fighting terror. Jews have always feared the consequences of authorities who assemble private data about ordinary citizens. At the same time, they have often been targeted by terrorism. When it comes to balancing genuine security needs and civil liberties, Jewish leaders and organizations need to be part of the discussion.